SAN DIEGO – The path back to contention will include multiple steps for the Toronto Blue Jays, each one theoretically building off the last. In time, the Blue Jays believe those steps will lead to a perennial contender. We’re just a ways away from that point now.
The challenge this off-season was more modest: strengthen a rotation that combined to post a 5.25 ERA in 2019. With better pitching in place, a young core of position players could conceivably carry this team to a .500 record – maybe even beyond. But there was no way around it: the Blue Jays needed arms.
By agreeing to terms with Tanner Roark to a two-year, $24-million deal, the Blue Jays added durability to a staff that churned through 21 different starters last year. The deal, which is pending a physical according to sources, undoubtedly brings the Blue Jays a little closer to respectability.
Yet even after signing Roark, there’s plenty of work remaining for GM Ross Atkins, both in the rotation and elsewhere.
“We expect to push things forward this off-season and at the deadline and again next off-season,” Atkins said, speaking in general terms. “We do feel very optimistic and have confidence as we look at the remaining landscape for pitchers and players. It’s not just pitcher-specific. There’s a lot of really talented position players that could impact us via trade and free agency that we have access to.”
“There’s not a potential avenue that we could not go down,” he continued. “That’s a unique situation that I’ve never been in.”
First, Roark. He’s 33 now, coming off a season in which he posted a 4.35 ERA in 165.1 innings for the Reds and Athletics. With 30-plus starts in five of the last six years, he brings stability to a rotation that has few veterans beyond Chase Anderson and Matt Shoemaker. While undoubtedly intriguing, Ryan Borucki, Trent Thornton and Anthony Kay are still unproven.
Getting to this point required persistence for Roark, a 25th-round pick who posted a 21.41 ERA in the independent Frontier League in 2008. He returned to affiliated baseball the following year, then debuted with the Nationals in 2013 just weeks before his 27th birthday.
In the years since, Roark put together some truly excellent seasons, posting a 2.85 ERA in 198.2 innings in 2014 followed by a 2.83 ERA in 210 innings two years later. Since then, he’s settled in as more of an innings eater, averaging a 4.46 ERA with 176 innings and 2.1 wins above replacement per season since 2017.
If the Blue Jays get that kind of production in 2020 and 2021, they’ll be happy. At $12 million per season, they’re paying him to be a solid contributor, not a centrepiece.
But even after Roark, the Blue Jays need at least one more starter, so they’ll continue exploring trades and free agent deals in the days ahead. They’ve been legitimately in on Rick Porcello and Hyun-jin Ryu at the Winter Meetings, and others, such as Wade Miley and Alex Wood, remain on the free agent market, too. The $12 million commitment to Roark still leaves Atkins with plenty of flexibility.
One potential target went off the market Wednesday, when right-hander Josh Lindblom agreed to a three-year deal with the Brewers. While it’s not entirely clear how Lindblom’s success in Korea will translate to MLB, this example shows Toronto front office is operating on multiple fronts at once. The Blue Jays made a significant offer for Lindblom before he landed in Milwaukee, according to a source.
Beyond the pitching market, the Blue Jays expect to work toward “adding a position player or two,” according to Atkins. At first base, Edwin Encarnacion, Justin Smoak and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo are on the radar.
The Blue Jays are open to upgrades in the outfield, too, but they already have plenty of corner outfield options and finding a centre fielder’s far easier said than done.
“We’d be very open to adding in centre field as long as it’s a significant upgrade,” Atkins said. “There’s not a ton of premium centre fielders that we see as significant upgrades on the guys that we have.”
While the Toronto front office has checked on the likes of Kole Calhoun, he doesn’t appear to be a priority now. Neither does Starling Marte, the Pirates outfielder whose future is now tied to former Blue Jays executives Ben Cherington and Steve Sanders.
More realistically, the Blue Jays still need pitching more than anything else. Roark helps on that front, for sure, but he doesn’t transform the rotation by any stretch. If they want to begin the 2020 season with a real chance at respectability, the Blue Jays need at least one more arm.